Friday, March 20, 2015

True Says It's Not True

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education believes Jeremiah Jonas Luther George True,  a student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, has a legitimate case because, as quoted by BuzzFeed's Katie J.M. Baker

Banning a student from a course simply because he expressed views on a topic of classroom discussion that some disagree with or are made uncomfortable by is generally inappropriate.  A college campus is precisely the place for students to grapple with ideas and develop critical thinking skills, often by challenging prevailing wisdom and subjecting their assumptions to rigorous testing.

When at the small, private liberal arts college (photo below from Wikimedia Commons/Makaristos)

Jeremiah True wouldn’t stop talking about his controversial opinions on sexual assault in his required freshman humanities course, his professor banned him from the discussion segment of the class for the remainder of the semester.

The 19-year-old told BuzzFeed News that his professor, Pancho Savery, warned him repeatedly that his views made his classmates uncomfortable before he told him in a March 14 email that he was no longer welcome to participate in the “conference” section of his Humanities 110 lecture-seminar class.

“Please know that this was a difficult decision for me to make and one that I have never made before; nevertheless, in light of the serious stress you have caused your classmates, I feel that I have no other choice,” Savery wrote in the email, obtained by BuzzFeed News.

True, whose Facebook page says he studies “How to Annoy People” at Reed, takes pride in challenging his classmates’ opinions.

“I know many people aren’t comfortable with taking the stances I do, but I’m not a sheep,” he said.

True said he sparred with classmates over discussion topics related to ancient Greece and Rome, such as the “patriarchal” belief that logic is more important than emotion and his analysis of Lucretia’s rape. But it was his questioning of the widely shared and often debated statistic that 1 in 5 women in college are sexually assaulted — it doesn’t serve “actual rape victims” to “overinflate” numbers, he said — and his rejection of the term “rape culture” that led to him being banned, he said.

“I am critical of the idea of a rape culture because it does not exist,” he wrote in a lengthy email to Savery explaining his perspectives that he has also posted online. “We live in a society that hates rape, but also hasn’t optimized the best way to handle rape. Changing the legal definition of rape is a slippery slope. If sexual assault becomes qualified as rape, what happens next? What else can we legally redefine to become rape? Why would we want to inflate the numbers of rape in our society?”....

Savery, who declined to comment to BuzzFeed News, wrote in his email to True that he had discussed whether to ban True from class with another professor before making his decision.

“There are several survivors of sexual assault in our conference, and you have made them extremely uncomfortable with what they see as not only your undermining incidents of rape, but of also placing too much emphasis on men being unfairly charged with rape,” Savery wrote to True. “The entire conference without exception, men as well as women, feel that your presence makes them uncomfortable enough that they would rather not be there if you are there, and they have said that things you have said in our conference have made them so upset that they have difficulty concentrating in other classes. I, as conference leader, have to do what is best for the well-being of the entire class, and I am therefore banning you from conference for the remainder of the semester.”

The First Amendment does not apply to private colleges and

Savery said it was too late for True to transfer to another conference but that True could still get credit for the course by completing the last paper and the final exam, and that he was welcome to discuss the remainder of the semester’s readings with Savery in his office.

True told BuzzFeed News that he didn’t feel he had belittled or “incited violence” against any sexual assault survivors who may have been in class.

“I simply questioned the statistics,” he said. “I understand [Savery] has to take care of his students, but I have to take care of my education.”

At Reed, which asks students to govern themselves using an “honor principle” that applies to all aspects of student life, professors are allowed by faculty code to use their own discretion to dismiss a student from class for “serious misconduct” if they consult with the student’s adviser first. (True said Savery was his adviser.) Reed spokesperson Kevin Myers said this was the first “instructor dismissal” he had heard of in his eight years working for the college and that administrators were investigating whether True was removed for appropriate reasons.

“For over 100 years, Reed has been very committed to free speech and diverse viewpoints, and maintaining an environment in which people can live and learn and work and express themselves honorably,” Myers said.

There is heightened sensitivity about sexual assault on college campuses these days because, as BuzzFeed notes,

More than 90 colleges are currently under federal investigation for allegedly mishandling sexual violence cases. Sexual assault on campus has become a hot-button issue both in Washington, where the White House launched a task force and senators have introduced bipartisan legislation, and on campuses like Reed, which roughly 1,500 students attend. For activists nationwide, the crackdown on campus sexual assault is long overdue. But other politicians and commentators have accused schools under pressure of suppressing free speech and mistreating accused students.

Reed’s own policies have been the object of scrutiny for years. Despite its small size, Reed’s students reported the most sex crimes of all colleges and universities in the state of Oregon during 2010–2012 and ranked third in the number of reported assaults per 1,000 students in the country in 2012.

“Reed is a private institution that often drops the ball in its responses to sexual misconduct, but this is an excellent example of a professor taking initiative to take care of his students,” senior Rosie Dempsey told BuzzFeed News. “Of course, we are an institution that encourages dissent and active discussion, but there is a difference between stimulating discussion through opposition and making other students feel unsafe.”

Buzzfeed quoted two female students, one who stated "It’s really nice to know that my school supports survivors and listens when they say they don’t feel safe. Rape culture is indisputable and [True’s] words and actions are deeply upsetting." The other maintained True began to express his views "more openly and aggressively" and "continued to argue with people who had expressed to him that they felt unsafe and uncomfortable. He said rape culture didn’t exist, but I feel like I live rape culture every day.”

Those remarks strike at the heart of True's dispute.  In an open letter to the college as part of a petition, JJLGT (photo below from his Facebook page) linked to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the FBI's uniform crime statistics for 2013, Time magazine, and elsewhere "to much of the research that I have performed during the course of my stay here at Reed He is determined to counter the oft-referenced, misleading, and ultimately useless "1 in 5" statistic for campus sexual assault and adds

I am critical of the idea of a rape culture because it does not exist. We live in a society that hates rape, but also hasn't optimized the best way to handle rape. Changing the legal definition of rape is a slippery slope. If Sexual assault becomes qualified as rape, what happens next? What else can we legally redefine to become rape? Why would we want to inflate the numbers of rape in our society? Why would we define someone who was groped at an SU dance as a rape victim when just a couple of blocks away, there is an actual, forcible penetrative rape occurring that will actually mentally scar a person for life? Why are we treating someone as a rape victim when they haven't been raped? A groping is not rape, nor should it be redefined to become rape. Rape is traumatic. Sexual assaults (such as groping) can be traumatic, but they are not an invalidation of a person's identity. They do not force someone to open themselves up to violent intrusion and brutal, psychological damage. They are not crimes which women feel afraid to report because they fear backlash and victim blaming. We need to change the system, not change the definition of crime. We have limited resources available to rape victims, and hysteria is not the solution to dealing with the very real problem of rape in our society.

Skeptical of True, Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams writes 

If you want to challenge the undeniably less than rock solid “one in five” statistic, you’ve got a fine case, and I’ll defend your right to make it. Further, if you want to say things on Facebook, it shouldn’t influence your participation in a specific class. And I absolutely don’t believe colleges should become so overly concerned about potentially difficult subjects and ideas they are afraid to approach them. But is this truly a case of a male with an unpopular opinion being shut down because of his beliefs? Or is it about a possibly disruptive student creating an environment that was not productive for the rest of the class? 

Aside from the actual students, none of us was in the class and therefore it's impossible to answer either of Williams' questions. Even if we were in the class, we might not answer her questions accurately, given that our responses would be subject to interpretation, our differing observations and preconceived notions.  Without knowing precisely- or nearly precisely- how this transpired in and out of class, it's nearly impossible to know exactly how the matter should have been handled.  Still....

While "unjustified accusations" or "ideological bias" would have been a less gender-charged term than "hysteria," True is correct. Sexual assault and rape are not synonymous but the terms frequently are used interchangeably.  If there is no difference between sexual assault and rape, the former phrase, cold and clinical, should be dropped in favor of "rape," an act which everyone understands and abhors (except, in the latter case, rapists). The tip-off, however, is that if the two acts were identical, we have a far, far greater problem than even the students critical of True believe- or could imagine. (There would then be broad and rampant hysteria, all of it justified.)

Additionally, there is no "rape culture." Or perhaps there is- we can't know because "rape culture" is not defined, and is perhaps undefinable. A "culture" (like a "war on...") can be whatever we say it is, which renders the concept worthless.  What we do know, of course, is that attributing the problem- or much of it- to a culture redirects blame from the offender, deflecting attention from the individual responsible for the act of sexual violence.  Although not the focus of his defense, True quotes RAINN's argument

While it is helpful to point out the systemic barriers to addressing the problem, it is important to not lose sight of a simple fact: Rape is caused not by cultural factors but by the conscious decisions, of a small percentage of the community, to commit a violent crime.

(Then all the people said "Amen.")

Both the President and the Vice-President have trotted out the dubious 1-in-5 statistic. Biden has an excuse because as the Senator who introduced the Violence Against Women Act (which addressed domestic violence) ultimately enacted in the early '90s, he is committed to the cause of preventing violence against women. But President Obama, who aside from his family is committed to nothing, has no such excuse.

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